The day the White House announced plans for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump publicly doubted whether Moscow had interfered with the campaign that landed him in the White House.
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” Trump tweeted, contradicting the persistent conclusions of his own country’s intelligence agencies.
Such statements have stirred controversy here for the last two years. Now they’re also rattling U.S. allies in Europe, where Moscow has deployed some of the same disinformation tactics that it used to manipulate the U.S. campaign.
As Trump prepares to meet with Putin on July 16 in Helsinki, Finland, there’s little sign that he’s willing to take a hard line against election interference.
“We’re going to be talking about elections,” Trump told reporters recently. “We don’t want anybody tampering with elections.” However, he didn’t blame Russia for any of its actions.
U.S. and foreign experts and government officials point to a series of incidents across Europe that show Moscow’s ambition to spread political chaos on the continent.
Hackers released a trove of emails from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign last year while Russia was backing the right-wing candidate, Marine Le Pen. Latvia has seen a wave of disinformation that officials fear may increase in the months leading up to parliamentary elections this fall. Sweden is strengthening efforts to counter fake news spread through social media in hopes of deterring Russian interference in its government.
“The Russians have discovered it works very well. It’s cheap. It’s effective,” said a European diplomat who requested anonymity to candidly discuss international relations.
Trump will likely get an earful about the problem shortly before he meets with Putin, when he attends the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s summit in Belgium. He’s shown little affection, however, for the alliance, which was created in the wake of World War II as a bulwark against Russian influence.
A harbinger came during a NATO meeting last year, when Trump became the first U.S. president in decades not to reiterate U.S. support for Article 5, the provision which requires each NATO member to defend all others against attacks. Once his failure to support the treaty provision became a point of public controversy, Trump eventually endorsed it.
Trump has also undermined German Chancellor Angela Merkel, criticizing her leadership as she faces political challenges at home.
“It’s no longer clear who’s the fox and who are the chickens,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In fact, the goals of Russia’s election interference efforts have often seemed to align with Trump’s own goals.
Russia wants to undermine a united Europe, represented by the European Union and NATO, and thereby expand its own power, according to the majority view of U.S. government and private analysts.
“For Russia, a disunited Europe is better than a united Europe,” said Angela Stent, who directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.
Meanwhile, Trump has expressed interest in dealing with European countries on an individual basis in an effort to seek better trade deals, undercutting longstanding international organizations. He also cheered on the Brexit movement that is splitting the United Kingdom from the European Union — a campaign that has been accompanied by its own allegations of Russian interference.
Trump has been sensitive to questions about Moscow’s meddling, believing they’re used to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.
He tweeted last week that he doubted law enforcement had adequately investigated the issue. “So many questions, so much corruption!”
U.S. intelligence agencies have unanimously concluded that Russia released hacked emails and spread disinformation on social media to boost Trump’s candidacy. Whether anyone from Trump’s campaign or his circle of associates participated in that effort remains under investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” said a declassified report from the intelligence agencies that was released before Trump was inaugurated.
“We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report said.
The conclusion was backed up Tuesday by a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which said not only that Putin had directly ordered the interference, but that Russia sought to boost Trump’s candidacy.
Similar tactics have been used in Europe, notably in countries along Russia’s western border that used to be part of the Soviet Union before it was dissolved in 1991.
“Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are clearly on the front line of the Kremlin’s malign influence operations and have suffered from some of the most egregious cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns yet seen in Russia’s near abroad,” said a January report from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
When Canadian troops were stationed in Latvia last year, fake articles on Russian websites accused them of living large in luxury apartments, littering and spending their time buying beer.
Latvia is particularly vulnerable to Moscow’s propaganda because roughly one quarter of the population speaks Russian. The country’s experience has led to new efforts to counter fake news by teaching students to sort through propaganda.
“The first priority is to be able to protect the minds of our people,” Janis Garisons, Latvia’s defense secretary, told the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, last year.
Russia appeared to take even bolder steps last year before France’s elections.
The right-wing National Front party received 9 million euros in loans from the First Czech Russian Bank at a time when it was struggling to find financing from French institutions.
“They didn’t even cover their tracks. It’s the Prague branch of a Russian bank,” said Charles Lichfield, a London-based analyst at the Eurasia Group, an international consulting organization.
Much like Clinton’s campaign in the U.S., Macron’s team saw its emails hacked and released on the internet. Some security consultants have pinned the blame on organizations with links to Russian intelligence.
Macron still won in a landslide, however, defeating the National Front’s Le Pen.
Sweden started to fear Russian political interference during the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, a military operation that was accompanied by widespread disinformation campaigns.
The country’s Civil Contingencies Agency started gearing up its operations a few years later. It tracks social media and Russian news websites in hopes of beating back fake stories.
“Seeing what’s happened to other elections, we realized we need to prepare our own elections,” said Mikael Tofvesson, who leads the agency.
So far, Tofvesson said, there haven’t been many problems. But campaigns won’t be in full swing until about a month before the country’s Sept. 9 elections.
“We’re going to expect it to happen, because we can’t afford not to be prepared,” he said.
Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.